New Explorer K-8 School has hit its limits

Second-grade teacher Christine Barton leads a reading group in the Explorer K-8 School room she shares with a second teacher. Together, they have about 30 students in the one room. Explorer opened this year, but is running at near-capacity with many teachers sharing space. Classes were crowded, with 29 in one first-grade section and 33 in another.

RON THOMPSON | Times

Second-grade teacher Christine Barton leads a reading group in the Explorer K-8 School room she shares with a second teacher. Together, they have about 30 students in the one room. Explorer opened this year, but is running at near-capacity with many teachers sharing space. Classes were crowded, with 29 in one first-grade section and 33 in another.

SPRING HILL — It was time for morning announcements at Explorer K-8 School, and principal Dominick Ferello had an important job to do.

A young student was stepping up to the microphone to recite the Pledge of Allegiance for the school's nearly 2,000 students and staff, and he was feeling nervous.

"Now, nice and slow," Ferello said, as the boy hit a rough patch. "That's right, 'for which it stands …' ."

It was a nice moment for Hernando County's newest principal, who arrived last fall from Broward County promising high energy and a personal touch.

But it hasn't been an easy start for Ferello or his three assistant principals, who have grappled with unexpected overcrowding and a host of related problems.

Too many students showed up. Dismissal in the snarled parking lot was a daily nightmare. Ferello was the only experienced administrator on the team, and none of them had ever run a school with the size and capacity of an ocean liner.

Lately, some district officials have been rethinking their philosophy when it comes to planning and building such facilities.

"I don't think we should be building 2,000-student schools," board member John Sweeney said last month.

• • •

Just how big is it?

"This is so big," Ferello said one morning last month, prior to an extended absence due to illness. "It's hard to communicate. I have 206 employees. It's like a small city."

Physically, the building is 850 feet long with a partial third floor, said facilities director Roland Bavota. That's a bit shorter than its two-story sister school, 1,100-foot Challenger K-8.

(By comparison, the Cunard ocean liner Queen Elizabeth II measures in at 963 feet, with a capacity of 1,778 passengers.)

What that means is a lot of walking. Administrators have to keep moving if they hope to keep track of what's happening in classrooms.

Only once has Ferello visited all 99 rooms on the same day, and that was before the start of school last August. He wanted to see how teachers had set up their rooms, and leave an encouraging, personal note to start the year.

"It's physically impossible," he said. "I started at 9 a.m. and finished at 2."

As the first day of school approached, it was clear there would be a lot of students — perhaps more than the 1,759 that a district rezoning committee had projected for Explorer.

Actual enrollment has come in at about 1,994 students. Most of the extras were students who moved into the area over the summer, many into nearby rental properties, officials said.

And the school's population is considerably more complex and diverse than the magnet program at Challenger. Many Explorer students come from families of lower-than-average income. The school also hosts about 200 children at Hernando County's first academy for gifted students, and 300 children with moderate to severe special needs.

"We've had some issues in seventh and eighth grades with kids pushing the envelope," Ferello said. "I mean really pushing the envelope."

Deputies were called to the school 13 times within the first month, mostly for incidents described as battery, according to police reports.

"I'm not going to let a small group of kids run amok," Ferello said. "If it's an offense that's severe, I'm handling it severely."

• • •

Officially, School Board members weren't even scheduled to discuss Explorer at an Oct. 29 workshop on plans for a new K-8 off U.S. 19.

But Explorer kept coming up.

Their theme? Never again would they allow such things.

"You have overcrowded classrooms," said then-board member Jim Malcolm. "Most classrooms are a team or co-teaching situation with 30 or more students and two teachers."

Superintendent Wayne Alexander said actual classroom usage was a mix. Some classes have up to 32 students with two teachers, but other rooms have plenty of space and just five or six students, he said.

That wasn't the right answer for board member John Sweeney, whose wife, Vivian, works as one of three assistant principals at the school. He questioned "whether it's appropriate to have more than 30 kids and two teachers in a room."

The board agreed to hire a fourth assistant principal to help reduce the load on administrators.

Members vowed to avoid what Alexander described as the "perfect storm" of controversy over the school's single entrance onto Northcliffe Boulevard. The limited access caused weeks of traffic jams, while a rear entrance remained padlocked by order of a County Commission fearful of new traffic problems.

Members also voiced concerns about the effect of overcrowding on special-needs students, and raised the possibility that some students could be returned — or invited — back to the schools they left last spring when the district was rezoned to accommodate Explorer.

"If they want to go back to their schools voluntarily, I don't know why we wouldn't want to support that," Malcolm said, referring to "empty rooms" at Spring Hill and Deltona elementary schools.

Officials say the proposed K-8 on U.S. 19 may be postponed until 2011 due to lagging enrollment in the county. But it's possible when a district rezoning committee reconvenes in January it could take steps to relieve Explorer.

Despite the rocky start, teachers and staff members say Ferello has been a steadying influence. And he made some key decisions that helped the school get into a rhythm this fall.

When the overcrowding became evident, he immediately began interviewing more teachers and found some good ones.

"I had an average of 36 to 38 students," said Sara Toxen, a sixth-grade math teacher. "It wasn't fair to the kids or the teachers."

Her newly hired teacher partner, Michael Shelton, used to work in the investment field. On Halloween, he was dressed as a basketball referee, and Toxen waddled the halls in a Sumo wrestler outfit. They took their classes outside for a high-energy day of math relays.

As it happened, Halloween was Ferello's last day on the job this fall. A day later, he was taken ill and hospitalized for an extended period. Former principal David Schoelles, a district curriculum specialist, was enlisted to run the school in his absence.

Officials aren't sure when Ferello will return, but say he's on the mend and will be back.

But on that Halloween day at Explorer, it was easy to see why Ferello got into the schooling business. Even with a nagging headache, he powered down the hall, calling out greetings to students and strolling through classrooms.

"Hola, Mr. Ferello!" one student in a Spanish class shouted, returning the greeting.

The classes were indeed crowded in the lower grades, with 29 in one first-grade section and 33 in another.

But teachers compensated by designing activities that required less student movement. A few said there were advantages to having a second adult in the room, with one speaking from the front and the other roaming to give extra help.

"I'm just lucky the rooms are this big," whispered Ferello, as he slipped into an overloaded class. "This was supposed to be 18 kids and two teachers. It didn't work out that way."

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

New Explorer K-8 School has hit its limits 11/29/08 [Last modified: Friday, December 5, 2008 8:16pm]

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